Watching The Last Dance on ESPN, I think of those gruesome lines from Sylvia Plath’s poem “Daddy”: Every woman adores a Fascist / The boot in the face, the brute / Brute heart of a brute like you. Most readers likely know the documentary series, directed by Jason Hehir, centers on Michael Jordan’s involvement in the ’90s-era Chicago Bulls dynasty, using the 1997-98 season’s culmination in an NBA championship to tell the story of how that dynasty came to be. Therefore, most readers can already guess where I am going with this allusion to Plath’s poem. One of the key lessons this documentary taught me is that folks of all genders learn to adore brutal tyrants, and will only fall further into that admiration despite their abuse, as long as the tyrant is uniquely talented, powerful, and wealthy, and seemingly transcends the earthly obligations that keep most of us humble.
Let’s start with the responses from ESPN’s First Take team — Stephen A. Smith, Max Kellerman, and Jay Williams — which regularly covers the National Basketball Association and all the turmoil and theatrics that unfold from each team’s seasonal crusade for the championship. Each has only fawning praise for Jordan — particularly Smith, who insists that most contemporary players couldn’t have endured what Jordan did on his way to his first championship. For Smith, the series “cements in my mind that Jordan is the greatest of all time, and as far as I’m concerned it’s not even an argument.” Williams and Kellerman fall in line with this contention. And while their assertions might be dismissed as cheerleading for the hero of a documentary coproduced by ESPN Films, a subsidiary of their employer, The Last Dance is also a smash hit with audiences. It’s already become the network’s most popular documentary after releasing its last two episodes this past Sunday. It has also been ascendant on social media, spawning a host of conversations, remembrances, and commentary across a range of platforms.
One of the few dissenting voices has been documentarian Ken Burns, who rightfully calls out how Jordan’s own production company Jump 23 was involved with ESPN and Netflix in producing The Last Dance. He says, “If you are there influencing the very fact of it getting made, it means that certain aspects that you don’t necessarily want in aren’t going to be in, period.” I agree with Burns, and the fact that Jordan allows certain unsavory aspects of his personality to shine through says a great deal about our culture’s commitment to worshiping the strongman. But the general preponderance of responses have been caught up in the enthusiasm around winning that’s at the heart of this story.
The documentary begins by building up the drama that suffused the ’97–’98 NBA season. The Bulls team, which had dominated the NBA since ’91 — except for an interlude when Jordan, who needed more worlds to conquer, decided to play baseball for 18 months — came together once more to win the Larry O’Brien Trophy. They had problems with the general fatigue that comes from playing a grueling 82 games between the end of October and the end of April, cultivating team chemistry, keeping players healthy, and so on. But the pivotal friction lay between Scottie Pippen, Jordan’s main wingman, and the management, represented by general manager Jerry Krause and owner Jerry Reinsdorf. Pippen had signed a lengthy contract extension in 1991 that locked him into a deal, meaning that by the final year of his contract, he was ranked 122nd in the NBA and sixth on the Bulls in terms of salary.
One of the potentially potent storylines the series could have explored is this persistent disharmony between management and workers, but this is passed by in favor of a (flawed) hero tale. Nevertheless, The Last Dance does bring to light the ways in which both Pippen and Jordan (who was sympathetic to his lieutenant’s grievance) constantly publicly demeaned and belittled Krause. Like most people in this saga, Krause bends like a reed before the storm of Jordan’s scorn.
The series at first seems structured like a typical documentary. Witnesses and co-conspirators discuss various aspects of the championship run and the hero at its center, supplemented by archival footage of games, practices, road trips, and celebratory events. I find the inclusion of several journalists giving their accounts of that time particularly appealing, because I remember watching the games and hearing the voices of Hannah Storm, Ahmad Rashād, and Bob Costas.
Another significant directorial choice is to move between seasons and years within a single episode. In one sequence, Jordan discusses losing a playoff game to the Indiana Pacers at a press gaggle, and calmly says that he’s not concerned about losing the series because “whether you are Indiana or Utah,” the teams would still need to go through Chicago. At this point the story switches to a previous season, when the Bulls faced the Utah Jazz in the playoffs. These temporal shifts started to become dizzyingly overwhelming, except by design, I was anchored to the lodestone of Michael Jordan throughout. The dynasty was always really about him.
Michael Wilbon, a former Washington Post writer, describes Jordan as the “ultimate sports alpha male.” The aggressiveness of his play and dominance of his skill and his personality are largely indisputable. In 1998, he became the only player to accomplish all the following in one season: lead the league in scoring and steals, win the league’s Most Valuable Player award, be the All-Star Game MVP, and win the Defensive Player of the Year Award. Moreover, he won the slam dunk contest in the same year. And this was all before he had a team behind him which would be championship-caliber. In the words of notorious Indiana coach Bobby Knight, “He’s the best athlete, competitor, and one of the most skilled players.”
More than that, Jordan was uniquely self-disciplined, refusing from early in his career to party with his teammates. With a glass containing what looks like scotch or bourbon at his elbow, he tells the camera that he did not drink during his early playing days. I believe it, because only a man with both a uniquely healthy body and a will that refused to surrender could sustain a bout of food poisoning the night before a playoff game against the Utah Jazz and, amazingly, triumph. As Jordan says, “My innate personality is to win at all costs.”
But The Last Dance only fleetingly deals with what these wins cost others. Teammate Will Perdue does attest: “He was an asshole … He crossed the line numerous times.” Steve Kerr, who endured an actual fistfight with Jordan during a practice session, also admits, “Michael would just bludgeon everyone around him.” Jordan corroborates this, describing his treatment of his teammates like so: “If you don’t get on the same level as me then it’s going to be hell for you.”
Furthermore, to my recollection, in the entire series, Jordan only becomes visibly emotional while speaking on camera twice: when he discusses the death of his father, and when he is faced with footage showing him being tyrannical with those on his team. Upon seeing the latter, he responds: “Look, I don’t have to do this. I’m only doing it because it is who I am. That’s how I played the game. That was my mentality. If you don’t wanna play that way, don’t play that way.” Tears brimming in his eyes, he asks to take a break.
Moments like this are meant to humanize Jordan, to make him seem like not quite a demigod or despot. The series does give the viewer some sense of how he became what he was, through brief interludes about how his rivalry with his brothers pushed him toward athletic achievement, or how during his first few years in the league, his raw talent was tempered by the vicious physical abuse handed to him by his first NBA nemesis, the Detroit Pistons.
But ultimately, Jordan was a bully. He punished and demeaned teammates, other players, managers, and (after the Bulls) other coaches, as well as whoever else I couldn’t see off-camera. It may very well be that in his personal life Jordan is not a brute, but he certainly was in his professional life, and most everyone forgave that. This forgiveness likely has to do with the fact that, as his agent David Falk explains, in the first year of Jordan’s first contract with Nike, the expectation was to sell about $3 million worth of sneakers; they sold $126 million. According to Roy S. Johnson, a reporter for Fortune, “Before Jordan, sneakers weren’t fashion and culture.” Even former President Barack Obama and both the former and current NBA commissioners, David Stern and Adam Silver, attest that Jordan helped take US culture to the rest of the world. Stern says that in 1992, the NBA was in 95 countries. It is now in 215, and “[Jordan] advanced us tremendously.”
And this is the ditch we’ve dug ourselves: We value profit over character, winning over the ability to lose with grace, and brutality over enjoying what should, after all, be a game. I grew up watching Jordan play, played basketball in high school, and for a time very much wanted to have his skills, his body, to be able to take flight and invent a way to whisk the ball through the basket no matter what was in the way. The Last Dance replays a Gatorade commercial from 1992, the tune of which I remember humming to myself. In it, Jordan plays with a cluster of children, smiling and laughing with them. The accompanying song begins with the lyrics: “Sometimes I dream that he is me / You’ve got to see that’s how I dream to be.”
I never could muster Jordan’s talent, or his drive, for that matter. But he haunts me because his story leaves questions we rarely pose to ourselves when we support a strongman or dictator: Why do we need him? How else might we dream to be?
The Last Dance is available to stream on ESPN.